Illustration by Zharmakhan Nurkhanuly

The Tehreek e Labbaik Pakistan is the New Face of Islamic Extremism in Pakistan

With its ludicrous brand of blasphemy politics and on-and-off cosplay as a terrorist organization, the Tehreek e Labbaik Pakistan has consolidated what many political parties can only hope for: the ability to close down cities in the blink of an eye.

Apr 18, 2021

In the modern history of Pakistani politics, no party with such negligible representation in the national Parliament has enjoyed such astonishing a presence on the national stage as the notorious Tehreek e Labbaik Pakistan, also known as the TLP. With its ludicrous brand of blasphemy politics and on-and-off cosplay as a terrorist organization, the extremist outfit has consolidated what many political parties in the country can only hope for in their infancy: an aggressive grass-roots base and the ability to close down cities in the blink of an eye.
Over the past week, violent TLP protests wreaked havoc in Pakistan as the party demanded the expulsion of the French ambassador over offensive depictions of Prophet Muhammad published by the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo last year. The arrest of the party’s leader — Saad Rizvi — only triggered further protests across major cities. This is one of the many displays of TLP’s ability to influence legislative policy without even having any legislative presence in the National Assembly. The TLP currently has zero seats in the National Assembly and only three in the Sindh provincial assembly and yet within a span of hours, it was able to block major highways and roads in cities across the country. Its power lies not in its presence in the corridors of power in the halls of the Parliament House in Islamabad, but in its ability to change what that power looks like on the roads with the masses. Time and time again, we have seen the way it was able to influence amendments in the blasphemy law in 2017 and the way it has been able to hold the federal government hostage to its demands.
This evolution of TLP from an activist organization on the streets to a major power broker within the government is disturbing but hardly unsurprising — the TLP did not just march into the streets out of nowhere and accumulate its street power.
Ever since Imran Khan took office, we have seen the construction of a veneer of religiosity around his administration — claims of his ‘Riyasat e Madina’ style of governance supersedes any policy that his administration has put forward. When one claims to transform the country on the basis of religion — throwing any semblance of a secular socio-political culture left within the Pakistani state out of the window — how jarring is it when the self-proclaimed stakeholders of religion march in the street to hold the government accountable to its own word? Paired with the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, also known as PTI, the government’s constant treatment of the TLP as a legitimate political actor has reinforced their notions of legitimacy. We saw this with the Asia Bibi blasphemy case where a Christian woman was accused of blasphemy. And we are seeing this right now with the issue of the French boycott where the TLP has used the government’s own rhetoric of religious governance to hold it to its extremist demands.
In the 2018 elections, the TLP emerged as the fifth-largest political party by the national popular vote count. A demographic breakdown of the constituencies in which the party largely sourced its support reveals them to be largely from working-class areas populated by industrial workers, which have been abandoned by the mainstream political parties and sheltered by the mosques and madrasas which are the central focal points of TLP’s organizational strategy. Unlike other political parties, the TLP does not operate with a conventional political framework; instead of organizing in inaccessible political halls and roundtables, it organizes in socio-religious environments, politicizing them as they come.
The politicization of the masjid is not a concept invented by this party, but in recent years TLP has been the only party to utilize it so successfully. The party’s tunnel-vision focus on the blasphemy laws in the country, and now beyond, provide it with the egotistical appeal and the emotional pivot that it needs to further polarize the masses. There is an unobscured absence of any economic messaging and a shameless indulgence in a meaningless culture war that yields nothing constructive except for violence. It is this hollow anarchism and monopolization of all discourse around religion that separates the TLP from other religious outfits in Pakistan.
This conversation begs the question: why does the TLP exploit the glamour of the blasphemy laws to such an intense degree? The discourse surrounding the blasphemy law in Pakistan has always been controversial and sensitive; people and communities have killed and have been killed for it. However, there is something very specific about the TLP’s co-option of this law that leaves all previous weaponization of it behind; rather than presenting the issue of blasphemy as hyper-individualistic or even national, it presents it as existential.
Even a lazy comparison of how the TLP has been dealt with by other political actors in Pakistan and the ways in which it has strong-armed social justice movements reveals how the normalization of its violent ways are not a coincidence. Its aggressive negotiating positions, casual issuance of violent death threats and ability to bring major cities in Pakistan to a halt are presented as mundane political events. There is some immediate incidental action, but arrests do not translate into prosecutions and there are no significant legal actions. On the contrary, even peaceful protests by organizers for the rights of women, gender and sexual minorities, religious minorities and the people of Balochistan are scrutinized and muddled with outrageously false allegations of everything ranging from violating public gathering policies to blasphemy. Why, then, is there an expectation from the TLP to act civil when they have always been allowed to get away with being anything but that? Why are its intolerance and lawlessness tolerated and treated lawfully?
Ibad Hassan is Communications & Social Media Editor. Email him at
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